This is how you know.
You slip into an empty classroom, 10 or 15 years later, and you sit at a desk.
You visit your parents one weekend after their house is no longer your house and you join them for Sunday Mass because that’s still the drill on Sunday mornings and you endure 11 minutes of post-Communion announcements from an unfamiliar priest with a soporific voice until he mentions the annual parish open house, immediately following Mass.
Then you formulate a plan.
While the parishioners are downstairs waiting for the student-led tours to begin and jockeying for smeary lemon danishes, you head upstairs to lead your own tour. You slip into an empty classroom that used to be your classroom and you pull a chair from an impossibly small desk and you sit down.
That’s all you do.
You are not here for the hallway welcome banners or the noodle art on the bulletin boards. You are here to sit. To marinate in memory. To linger with the scent of chalk dust. The faint whiff of the aquarium. The aging textbook spines. Smells that are and are not yours. After a while you drag the chair toward the desk and wrestle your legs underneath. It rises on your knees, levitating and familiar. You finger the eroded pencil ledge near the top, the engraved graffiti, calligraphic under lime green paint. You read carved names like buried Braille. The initials are not your initials. The names are not your friends’ names. And this is how you know.
This is your archaeology.
You stand in the parish parking lot listening for Ferris wheels.
Wishing you could remember what awe feels like. Wonder. The sudden magic of certain Mondays in May when you clambered off the bus to find a Tilt-A-Whirl on your Wiffle Ball field. Bumper cars parked where the girls double-dutched. A haunted house across the street from the convent. May mornings when nothing was recognizable. When you arrived for school to find the parish altered. The whole town changed.
For one week, Joan Jett and the J. Geils Band echoed off the stained glass windows. The nights spun, orange and electric. You held spaces in line. You rode The Satellite four times in a row without losing your Twinkies. You laughed and gulped the air. On a Tuesday night you waited until the Ferris wheel ground to a halt at the top of its arc and the seat rocked gently and a girl named Valerie looked out at the stars and you reached across with a sweaty, shaking hand and folded your fingers over her fingers and left them there. And she let you. And somewhere below, John Cougar sang a little ditty about Jack and Diane. And the stars rocked gently. And nothing was the same.
The night hitched imperceptibly on its axis.
Later, one of the Farnan twins cut home along the train tracks after the last ride shut down. He was hurrying and late, head still spinning from the beer he shotgunned behind the dumpster. His twin brother wasn’t with him.
That was the thing you wondered about.
Why his twin wasn’t there.
You huddled the next morning in tight schoolyard circles and discussed it. How dark it must’ve been. No moon, just the fading carnival glow beyond the hill. And quiet. Or windy, with rustling in the trees. Maybe he didn’t hear the footsteps shuffling behind him. Maybe he wished his twin brother was there.
It took 98 stitches to close the mess they made of him. More damage than you’d think an empty Michelob bottle could do. Drunk carnies, people said. Or kids from the next town over. Didn’t steal a thing, just left him bleeding in the grass. Stupid, they said. Senseless.
Not the kind of thing that happens here.
In quiet homes parents came up with new stories to tell. New cautionary tales about carnivals and moonless nights and stitches and train tracks and shortcuts. Nothing was quite the same. In barely recognizable ways, the parish changed.
A whole town shuddered on its axis.
Ten or 15 years later you stand in the sun and squint down an abandoned rail line. You stride between splintered ties, listening for footsteps. Because this is how you know. You feel your way home through forgotten shortcuts. You scan the gravel bed for trails that cut off through the choking weeds. It means letting go of maps. Remembering how to see the landscape through the lines. Memory as cartography.
It is more an act of rediscovery than reconstruction. You weave self-consciously along a warehouse alley, only to find the exit plastered over. You go looking for a hole in a familiar churchyard fence and realize church and yard and fence and hole are gone. You head for an old ball field with a dirt path that ribbons along the left-field line and encounter instead a sprawling, homogenous housing development. There you stand at the manicured edge of someone’s backyard and you consider hopping their fence and you wonder where your shortcut went, and this is how you know.
You know when you dig a deflated basketball out of your parents’ shed and fill it with air and drive to the courts and find them empty. No games running. Nobody working on their jumper. The backboards are freshly painted and immaculate. The rims hung with pristine nylon nets. Better than the rusted metal chains that used to catch your shots. You dribble twice and palm the ball, feeling for the sweet spots, the places where your fingers still fit. You pull up from 15 feet, working on your jumper. Seventeen feet. Fadeaway. Shots dropping. Raining through a muffled net.
Two kids with skateboards and saggy pants watch absently from a swing set. They tell you, when you ask, that nobody plays ball here much anymore. You nod and shake your head and fire off a three from the top of the key, wishing for a rusty chain net at the other end.
And really, that’s how you know.
That’s how you know that hometowns are not school buildings or school desks or churches or firehouses. They are not playgrounds or drugstores or movie theaters. They are the names of your friends, carved and buried under lime green paint. The taste of laughter mixed with Twinkies on a spinning, nickelodeon night. The rocking hesitation of a hand on a Ferris wheel.
Hometowns are the stories you tell your children to keep them safe. The sound of the wind in the trees on a moonless night. The persistent paths that cut through churchyards and ball fields and memories. A hometown is the smell of chalk dust and textbooks and rainstorms and popcorn and magic on a Monday morning in May.
Ten or 15 years later, after everything else has changed or been forgotten, a hometown is the brief, familiar rattle of a perfect backspin finding the truth of a rusty chain-link net.
David Devine, who now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon, grew up near Philadelphia.